Monday, March 21, 2005

The 40 Martyrs of Sebaste

The Feast of the 40 martyrs of Sebaste is one of the more important feast observed during lent. They represent in a striking way the struggle of Christians during the fast. But I first heard about the 40 Martyrs long before I became Orthodox... while watching John Jacobs and the Power Team on TBN (you know, the guys who break the bricks and the baseball bats, and blow up hot water bottles until the blow up). For the traditional (and more historically accurate) version of their martyrdom, you can click here. Click here for another similar version that provides original source references. But although the John Jacob version placed the story during the wrong persecution, and gives the wrong name for the 40th martyr... it preached pretty well, and from poking arround on the web, I've seen enough similar versions quoted in Protestant texts that I suspect it comes from some late western version of their martyrdom.

For some reason, this version refers to them as "wrestlers", though they were soldiers. But it follows the same basic outline as the older versions. They are told to renounce Christ. They are made to stand all night in a freezing lake, while bond fires and warm baths are set up on the beach to entice them to apostatize.

But here is the part I remember being struck with most:

The forty wrestlers were stripped and then marched toward the center of the lake. As they marched they broke into a chant similar to the one in the arena, “Forty wrestlers, wrestling for Thee O Christ, to win for Thee the victory and from Thee the victor’s crown.” Through the long night Vespasian stood by his campfire and watched. As morning drew near one figure, overcome by exposure, crept quietly toward the fire; in the extremity of his suffering he had renounced his Lord. Then faintly but clearly from the darkness came the song: “Thirty-nine wrestlers, wrestling for Thee, O Christ, to win for Thee the victory and from Thee, the victor’s crown.” Vespasian looked the figure drawing close to the fire and then out into the darkness whence came the song of faith. Then as if he saw the eternal light shining there in the center of the lake, suddenly, off came Vespasian’s helmet and clothing, and he ran out onto the ice crying, “Forty wrestlers, wrestling for Thee O Christ, to win for Thee the victory, and from Thee, the victor’s crown.”

Of course, John Jacobs put a bit of umph into the telling that this text does not fully convey... but this gives you some idea. So I have to thank John Jacobs and the Power Team for introducing me to these wonderful saints.